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HOW TO BE MORE ORIGINAL

Wed Feb 2 2020 Michael McQueen

How would you respond if you were told at a job interview, ‘Tell me something that you have invented’? This is exactly what Amazon’s Jeff Bezos says to new employees, in his effort to build and maintain a culture of innovation across all facets of the business.

Today, originality is one of the hottest topics and most crucial skills for businesses and employees.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Richard Florida and Jim Goodnight say, ‘A company’s most important asset isn’t raw materials, transportation systems, or political influence. Rather, it is creative capital and creative thinkers that matter most.’[1]

James Canton in his book Future Smart points out that tech giants like Google, Facebook and Apple care little about the college or university a graduate attended, or even necessarily their grades. Rather, today’s most visionary organisations are looking for the capacity for problem solving, curiosity and originality.[2]

While creativity and originality are increasingly important for securing a job today, they will also prove essential for a generation who will face the AI-driven changes in the years ahead.

The elements of originality that rely on our ability to synthesise unrelated ideas and construct something new or unexpected will remain a uniquely human skill for a long time yet. For the foreseeable future computers will remain devices especially good at answering questions, but not posing them. This means that entrepreneurs, inventors, scientists and creators of all kinds who can figure out what problem or opportunity to tackle next, or what uncharted territory to explore, will continue to be highly valuable.[3]

So, it is clear that originality is and will continue to be a key skill for employees, but how do we foster it? Perhaps a clearer way of assessing this is to look at the most efficient ways to kill creativity.

If you want to avoid creativity and original thinking, do these 3 things:

1. Devalue creativity

A key reason creativity and originality have suffered in the modern world is simply that society and our schooling systems have placed so little value on them.

Reflecting on this, Steve Sammartino in his book The Lessons School Forgot points out that there is an unconscious but undeniable hierarchy of subjects in schools driven by the value society places on different disciplines. A pecking order is quickly established where the students deemed smartest and with the most potential also happen to be the ones who are good at left-brain, logic-driven subjects like mathematics and science. One rung down the ladder are humanities subjects like finance, economics and literature. The bottom levels are reserved for ‘the artsy types’. 

As a result, Sammartino suggests ‘Kids are persuaded, falsely, that most artistic pathways have little economic value and are best left as something we do on the side. Which is ironic given how many companies like Apple and Nike have risen above commodity-centric competition on the back of artistic design of their products.’[4]

Addressing this systemic low regard for creativity and originality is not simply a case of encouraging people to choose artistic subjects or professions. Rather, it is about making space for and encouraging originality across all areas and undoing our existing prejudices.

2. Be distracted

The second factor that so often works against originality in today’s students and employees is the sheer volume of distractions they are surrounded by at every moment. 

The modern addiction to devices and social media is a fact we are all aware of. Data indicates that modern adolescents are spending an average of 2.7 hours connected to social media alone – with a quarter of them admitting they are constantly connected.[5] Nearly 30 per cent of young adults say that they feel they are addicted to social media.[6] This addictive quality comes from the dopamine release that occurs in our brain every time we engage with social activities through technology. Our brains love dopamine and we are encouraged to keep doing the things that give us that hit of instant gratification.[7]

We, as a society, are becoming addicted to being distracted.

The impact this has on originality is hard to overstate. After all, good ideas rarely interrupt us. 

Reflecting on the essential ingredients for originality, Professor Richard Foster of Yale University points to the important role of creating space and time. ‘Don’t just do something, stand there,’ he implores. 

In the words of the endlessly quotable Albert Einstein, ‘Creativity is the residue of time wasted.’ Of course, the wasted time Einstein refers to is far from mindlessly scrolling through social media. Rather, it is time spent playing, experimenting and, above all else, imagining. 

3. Disregard imagination

As far back as Plato and Aristotle, imagination was dismissed as an inferior function of the mind that came at the expense of more valuable things such as reason and logic. Descartes considered imagination a source of confusion that tended to only get in the way of reason’s inquiry.[8] Similar notions persist today. 

Romanticism was the only era that valued imagination in its own right. From it sprung our source of novelty, invention and generativity. The father of Romanticism, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, believed ‘It is our imagination which enlarged the bounds of possibility for us’. [9]

In recent times, some lone voices have expressed similar views. Prominent play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith believed that ‘To be able to imagine is to be able to be free of conventional appearances’. In other words, imagination is a critical factor in being able to think outside the box and consider new realities.

It’s clear that imagination plays an important role in counter-balancing the linear, left-brain logic that can so easily constrain originality. It’s worth noting, I’m not talking here of imagination in the childish sense of merely fantasy or play. Rather it’s imagination of the kind Alan White refers to in his book The Language of Imagination. According to White, ‘To imagine something is to think of it as possibly being so. An imaginative person is one with the ability to think of lots of possibilities, usually with some richness of detail.’[10]

The systematic rejection of creativity in schools and society, the modern addiction to distraction and the disregard of imagination are 3 of the biggest killers of originality and creativity. As skills which are increasingly essential for employability and humanity in an age of AI, creativity and originality are worth our esteem and attention. Undoing our current toxic treatment of them will be the first step to equipping us for an age where our creative abilities are crucial.

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Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 8 books. To order Michael's latest book "The Case for Character", click here.

To see Michael speaking live, click here and for more information on Michael's speaking topics, michaelmcqueen.net/programs.

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[1] McWilliam, E. 2008, The Creative Workforce, UNSW Press, Sydney, p. 46.

[2] Canton, J. 2015, Future Smart, Da Capo Press, Philadelphia, p. 239.

[3] Brynjolfsson, E. & McAfee, A. 2017, ‘The Business of Artificial Intelligence’, Harvard Business Review, July.

[4] Sammartino, S. 2017, The Lessons School Forgot, Wiley, Milton, p. 16, 17.

[5] Madden, C. 2017, Hello Gen Z, Hello Clarity, Sydney, pp. 31, 32.

[6] 2018, ‘More and more young adults addicted to social media,’ CBS, 18 May.

[7] Kim, L. 2016, ‘Multitasking is killing your brain’, Medium, 15 February.

[8] Egan, K. et al. 2007, Teaching And Learning Outside The Box, Teachers College Press, New York, p. 5.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.